You write fiction. Great! Wonderful! Terrific!
The first question that you have to ask yourself: Is your writing a hobby or a business?
Guess what. I already know your answer: “It’s a business. I’m going to write a bestseller that will make millions of dollars.” That’s what you’ve been telling your spouse ever since you graduated, or quit your job, or decided that you were going to quit your job as soon as you found an agent.
But is that the real answer? Let’s admit the truth. You can’t say that your writing is a hobby because that would sound bad. Hobbies are things that don’t matter. And your writing matters. You take it seriously so it can’t be just a hobby.
First, let me point out that hobbies are not mere play. Hobbies can be serious pursuits that make a difference in the world. Right now, hobbyists are discovering new stars, ancient artifacts, and new species of animals, both alive and fossilized. Hobbyists are writing software that competes with commercial releases. Hobbyists are maintaining museums and libraries and galleries.
Your writing can be a hobby and still be serious. It can be great literature that will become part of the Western Canon. Especially today when you can self-publish any novel as an ebook that will never go out of print.
So what does distinguish writing as a hobby from writing as a business?
What you write and how.
If your writing is going to be a business, then you have to write what people want to read. And not just people, vast numbers of people. Tens of thousands of people have to want to buy every book that you write if you want to feed yourself and put a roof over your head. Hundreds of thousands if you want to live well. Millions if you want to be rich.
There are plenty of books and blogs that will tell you how to write a bestseller. The bottom line, though, is that you have to figure out what other people want to read and write that. Exactly that and nothing but that. You don’t get to write whatever you want. You don’t get to lecture to people. You don’t get to indulge your passion for poetic language. You don’t get to show people how smart you are. You don’t get to write great literature. Most people don’t want to read great literature. They want to be entertained.
Above all, you don’t get to write one book. Bestsellers come in series. Bestselling writers write shelves of books.
That brings us to the how. How do you write?
If your writing is your job then you have to treat it like a job. You sit down at your desk for several hours every day and write. Every day. Not when the mood strikes. And you write. Fiction, not tweets and blogs and emails to friends. Stephen King, for example, sits at his desk for four hours every day, no matter how lovely the weather outside or what special program is being shown on television.
Even the best job isn’t much fun. If writing is your job, then you can’t expect to have fun doing it. Like any job, you have to spend so much time doing it that you become over-skilled in it. The words have to flow almost automatically. Stephen King has talked about “falling through the page” when he is writing. By that, he means that he is no longer paying attention to the words. They have become automatic. His mind is completely occupied with his characters’ actions.
Writing is an intense intellectual activity. You can’t spend eight hours a day on it. So does that make writing a part-time job? Sorry, no. The rest of the time, you have to promote your writing, negotiate with agents, and, if you’re lucky, answer fan mail.
So let’s ask the question again: Is your writing a business or a hobby?
You don’t have to tell anyone that it’s a hobby. But if you admit it to yourself that your writing isn’t a business then there is a pretty big upside. When you do write the next great English language novel and it sells only a thousand copies, you’re not a failed business, you’re an amazingly successful writer.